Student Engagement – The Missing Link in the GCC’s Education Reform Strategy

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With the region facing one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, GCC governments must bring the education system in line with the needs of the employment market; and, to do so, they must involve the students themselves, a group often overlooked in the reform process.

Today, there is a palpable sense of urgency in the Middle East to improve employ­ment levels and job options for the region’s young, growing populations. In effect, half of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 25, and a quar­ter of those between 15 and 24 are currently unemployed. In truth, one major reason for this widespread unemployment is a mismatch between the needs of the market and the skills being developed in schools. To help bridge this gap, Management consulting firm Booz & Company recently commis­sioned a survey that gathered the views of over 1,300 students from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The survey revealed that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) students have a strong grasp of the weaknesses and strengths of their education. More importantly, during the study, they expressed a clear desire to be involved in shaping changes to the system.

Student Engagement - The Missing Link in the GCC’s Education Reform Strategy
Booz & Company executives, Mounira Jamjoon (left) and Leila Hoteit

Education Reform – A Must for the GCC

A lack of well-trained teachers, outdated teaching methods, curricula that are neither relevant nor innovative, limited use of technology in the classroom, and little in the way of academic advice or career counseling are contributing to the mismatch between the outputs of the GCC’s education system and the needs of the employment market.

“While most GCC governments are aware of the problem and have made “human capital development” core to their policy agendas, problems still persist with the quality and relevance of GCC education,” explained Leila Hoteit, a Principal with Booz & Company. “The underlying difficulty remains a gap between the skills that businesses need and what young people learn in schools.”

Recent research by the Economist Intelligence Unit on the role of education found that making correlations between education inputs and outputs is very difficult. Put otherwise, simply pouring resources into the education system is not enough to guarantee results; to ensure education reform success, it is important to understand where or how well these investments are being made across various educational channels. Of course, country-specific cultural factors must also be taken into account to better determine exactly how real and positive change can occur within the education system.

This is especially important today as the number of GCC students is expected to grow from 9.5 million in 2010 to an estimated 11.3 million in 2020 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.8 percent – with tertiary students witnessing the highest growth during this period at a CAGR of 5.5 percent.

INFOGRAPHIC: Listening to Students’ Voices – Putting Students at the Heart of Education Reform

Putting Students at the heart of the Education Reform Infographic
Putting Students at the heart of the Education Reform Infographic

The Forgotten Stakeholder

Changes in the education system in the GCC involve a range of stakeholders such as governments, local authorities, schools, academia, and the private sector. Too often, however, they overlook the most important stakeholders, the students.

“Bringing students into the process of improving education is good policy and effective practice,” said Mounira Jamjoom, a Senior Research Specialist at the Ideation Center, Booz & Company’s think tank in the Middle East. “Research shows that student engagement improves student-teacher relationships, practices and procedures, policies, laws, and culture. Moreover, more students “buying in” and trusting in the reform process is critical for reforms to succeed.”

In recent years, other education authorities in very different contexts have successfully engaged their student populations. For instance, in the Canadian province of Alberta, Alberta Education has moved progressively from a government-led, top-down, policymaking approach to a more inclusive model with “meaningful student engagement.” In 2008, the system launched an online platform called “Speak Out,” giving students ages 14 to 19 a greater voice in the education system through blogs, podcasts, and real-time surveys.

In the U.S., the Pearson Foundation’s Million Voice Project grant program analyzes the perceptions of young people to provide educators with detailed student data for use to improve teaching and learning.

Finally, in recent years, education leaders in China decided to strengthen quality assessments by introducing two surveys adapted from research on student engagement at Indiana University: the National Survey of Student Engagement- China (NSSE-C) and the High School Survey of Student Engagement-China (HSSSE-C). Both instruments have drawn strong attention from policymakers, researchers, and student services personnel at both national and institutional levels, and have catalyzed a broader definition of education quality.

A Multifaceted, Revealing Survey

The fact is that students’ enthusiastic participation in these reforms is at least as critical as that of teachers and school leaders.

As a first step to including students in the reform process, Booz & Company recently commissioned a survey of high school and university students in the GCC to help educators and policymakers understand student perceptions of the education system. The findings will allow them to engage students and anticipate changes in their needs and attitudes. YouGov, a research and polling firm, conducted close to two dozen in-person interviews along with a broad survey of over 1,300 students in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

The male and female students included nationals, Arab expatriates and Western and Asian expatriates who attended public, private local, and private international schools.

Vital Insight

The survey and interviews revealed that GCC students value their education, understand its impact on their future, and want content and the teaching approach to be more inspiring, enjoyable, and creative.

The good news for reform-minded educators and policymakers is that nearly two-thirds of interviewees trust education leaders to spearhead educational reforms in their countries. However, when asked how confident they were in the quality of their education, the majority – 44 percent – responded with ‘somewhat confident’.

An encouraging survey finding is that students place a very high value on education: 65 percent want to live in an educated, intellectual society. Only a small portion of respondents see secondary education as a means unto itself; the majority of students aim to obtain at least a Bachelor’s degree in their lifetime. Another insightful finding is that, across the region, more women are looking to earn a doctoral degree than men: 15 percent versus 11 percent.

The two aspects of education that students said they most value are creating a secure future in terms of employment – 53 percent – and learning interesting information. According to the survey, upon graduation, one-third of respondents want to work in the public sector and another third are looking to join a multinational organization. Only 11 percent wish to launch their own business or be employed by a private local company. A very small number of respondents – 4 percent – aspire to do charity work post-graduation and 8 percent are still undecided about their career path.

“By and large, students trust education leaders and believe that education is fundamental to a secure future and that the type of school they attend is critical to future success,” added Hoteit. “However, they also assert that reforms are necessary on a number of fronts.”

Views on Reforms

Many students in the region – both nationals and expatriates – are inherently aware of their education systems’ shortcomings.

Overall, almost two-thirds of students said reforms would improve the education systems, and nearly a quarter said drastic reforms are needed on four fronts: a more varied choice of academic programs and more relevant material; better teachers and teaching methods; treating extracurricular activities as essential to their education; and improved academic advice and career counseling.

Indeed, the survey also found that students in the GCC lack critical information about preparing for university and their careers – such as how to apply to schools and what courses to take to prepare for specific careers. There is often a lack of provision for career education in the GCC, or it is implemented ad hoc by universities, a few progressive private-sector companies, and some programs by ministries of labor.

Ideally, career education should introduce students to an array of options and possibilities and spur lifelong learning to keep young people in school, provide an adequate base of knowledge to face and adapt to the challenges of a knowledge-based economy, and create a strong connection between education, training, and work.

In short, career guidance is critical to developing efficient labor markets and education systems.

Student Engagement

Students have a vested interest in the successful implementation of education reforms; it is not enough for educators and policymakers to simply ask students to voice concerns – they need to create mechanisms to establish an ongoing dialogue.

And so, unsurprisingly, students want to play a role in reform efforts. “They see an opportunity to do so through school student councils and social media platforms,” said Jamjoom. “In reality, 60 percent told us that social media has already made it easier for them to personally influence education reform. This view is especially prevalent among UAE residents.”

Students in all surveyed countries gave low scores to their interactions with school administrators. In terms of their level of involvement in educational decisions, 15 percent of students report having almost no input; in parallel, 36 percent of graduates – compared to 25 percent of students – have some input, with guidance from parents and family. In general and unsurprisingly, students report having a significantly lower level of input than graduates, as their educational choices are determined by family or their country’s education bodies.

Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness among government officials and school administrators that student engagement is important.

To conclude, GCC education reforms are critical to ensure that the skills taught in schools match those needed in the workplace, to reduce youth unemployment, and to position graduates to succeed in tomorrow’s more open and competitive economic environment. Although government policymakers and educators have recently enacted some reforms, students have not played a role as their voices have not been heard. This is a major oversight that must be corrected; bringing students into the process of improving education is good policy and effective practice.

They are, after all, the ones who will be seeking gainful, satisfying employment in just a few years.

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